Thursday, 16 November 2017

For My Grandfather: Respectable and Not-Respectable

Something which tends to be ignored or overlooked in modern socio-political discussion is the profound division in late-Victorian times between the respectable and not-respectable working classes. The respectable working classes (which meant primarily, though not exclusively, the skilled workers), clung obsessively to their status, and were always painfully aware that they could so easily slip from it. Districts of cities, and even individual streets, would be dismissed as definitely not-respectable. My grandparents lived in Keighley, in Yorkshire, in a part of the town that was respectable working-class, but if I dressed scruffily my grandmother would say I looked like "A top-o'-town kid"; that being where the poor Irish lived. Certain types of behaviour from children would lead to a family's respectable status being called into question; such things as spitting, swearing or, far worse, getting in trouble with the law or giving birth to illegitimate children being definitely low-class. Boys from respectable backgrounds read books and worked hard at school instead of playing games in the street, and joined the Scouts or the Boys' Brigade; but joining the army was definitely not for the respectable; army pay being too low to attract anyone except unskilled workers, farm labourers from the countryside, and of course the Irish. The respectable working classes attended church or chapel on Sundays, dressed in their best clothes for the occasion. Getting drunk in public was irredeemably not-respectable; and the skilled workers were the backbone of the Temperance or Prohibition movements. It was difficult for children from the not-respectable classes to break free from the stigma, though schools tried hard (often by means of brutal punishments) to outlaw non-respectable behaviour.
   Karl Marx famously dismissed the unrespectable working classes as the "Lumpenproletariat", useless from a revolutionary viewpoint because they had no economic muscle and could not be educated in socialist ideas. It was to the skilled working classes that he looked; and indeed until very late in the 19th century only the skilled workers were formed into Trades Unions. One of the great political shifts in British history occurred in the twenty years before the First World War, as the Trades Unions were taken over by socialists and the working classes transferred their allegiance from the Liberals to the new Labour Party.

(The finest book on the question of working-class respectability is Robert Roberts's autobiography, "The Classic Slum", about his upbringing in Salford before the First World War)


My grandfather and grandmother came from the respectable working class. I wrote this poem in my granfather's memory:- 

I never knew him
he died when I was five
but I have his watch and chain,
silver, made by a local firm 
in Keighley, where he lived his entire life,
"Presented to Thomas Midgley
on his 21st birthday
Oct. 25th 1903"

He was, I'm told
a man of the highest moral standards;
he disapproved of pubs
and scruffy dress;
he played the piccolo in the town orchestra,
he had a windup gramophone
and some good books
(Dickens, Walter Scott, Dumas),
he was an early member of the
Independent Labour Party,
he knew Philip Snowden,
the first-ever Labour Chancellor,
and he read the "Daily Herald"
the Trades Union paper 
(now defunct)

His wife, my grandmother, was
a mill-worker, very houseproud,
and a vegetarian (unusual in those days).
Before getting married they
saved up for years
in order to buy good furniture.

He would have described himself as
proud to be
working-class, Yorkshire, 
and respectable.
Do people like him exist today?

I found a recent picture of his house
(terraced, outside loo, near the railway)
It looked sadly run-down.

The watch runs erratically.
Nowadays it would be valued
solely by its bullion content.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Royal Cousins at War

In the decades before the First World War, the monarchs of Europe were all closely related to each other, but this did not necessarily mean they held each other in high esteem: often quite the opposite.    King Edward VII of England always had a low opinion of his nephew, the Kaiser William II of Germany. After enduring his presence at Cowes Week for the yachting, he dismissed him as "Nothing but a nuisance", lacking "the feelings of a gentleman". He also commented, "Trust him? Never! He is false, utterly false!" The Kaiser's opinion of Edward was no more polite: "You can never believe what a Satan he is", William complained, after Edward worked hard to improve relations with France: "He's utterly a Satan!" When Edward died in 1910, William attended the state funeral, but commented, "No-one will miss him except the French and the Jews". 
   Russian opinions of the Kaiser were little better. Tsar Alexander III referred to him as "A rascally young fop", Nicholas II said, "He was never sincere, never for a moment", and the Tsarina Alexandra neatly summed him up thus: "He thinks himself a superman, but is little more than a clown". 
   Edward VII had a low opinion of the abilities of Nicholas, who was the nephew of his wife. He assessed the Tsar as being, "Weak as water, deplorably unsophisticated, immature and reactionary".
   Kaiser William attempted to overwhelm Nicholas with his bumptious personality; but never really grasped that foreign affairs were no longer determined by monarchs acting as individuals. On the occasion of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, William urged Nicholas to "Defend Europe from the great Yellow Peril!", and attributed his own political problems to "Socialists in the Reichstag, egged on by the Jews; fit to be hanged!" When the two met at Bjorko in July 1905, they signed a Russo-German military alliance, in clear contradiction to both their countries' existing treaties, only to find it promptly rejected by their respective ministries!
   Tsar Nicholas dismissed the British as "Yids" (by which one presumes he meant that they behaved like Jews; Nicholas being strongly antisemitic), but he was on friendly personal terms with his cousin, George V. They closely resembled each other physically; their mothers being sisters. (George is on the right here)    
Image result for Nicholas-II-and-George-V
However, this amity did not prevent George from vetoing the suggestion that Nicholas and his family should be given refuge in Britain after the Russian revolution; a veto that was to have tragic consequences.
   The Kaiser grossly overestimated George's political influence. After he had received a friendly letter from George V as the crisis of 1914 escalated, William apparently believed the King of England would intervene to stop the outbreak of war between their countries; and when Britain did declare war on Germany in August, he blamed the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey: "The dirty bastard! He's made his own King a liar!"
   Neither William II, Nicholas II or George V was particularly intelligent, and none was a suitable leader for a major country in the 20th century. But whereas William attempted to dominate events in Europe, and Nicholas was dedicated to maintaining the Tsarist autocracy (and in consequence both overacted their chosen roles), George knew perfectly well that he was only a figurehead for a Parliamentary government, and throughout the many crises of his reign always behaved with the strictest constitutional propriety. In consequence he was the only one of the three to keep his throne.  

Friday, 27 October 2017

The Shard

Last week we were invited to the birthday reception of an old friend on top of the Shard building. 

Image result for The Shard

The weather was clear and bright, and there were marvellous views over the Thames and the East End of London! (These are from postcards)

I volunteered for the "virtual reality" experience of tobogganing down the outside of the Shard. I first had to sign numerous forms, guaranteeing that I wouldn't sue them if I suffered a heart attack. I then donned the headset and was strapped into a kind of cradle, which twisted and swayed to make the trip more realistic, and off I went. It was indeed very thrilling, and to avoid outright panic I had to keep telling myself that it wasn't really happening. My friends told me that I uttered sundry loud noises and exclamations. I would recommend this experience to everyone! 

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Yugoslav Holocaust, 1941

It is not generally known that the first deliberate massacre of Jews and other civilians in the Second World War actually took place in Yugoslavia; before the building of the death-camps in Poland; before even the Einsatzgruppen began their campaign of mass killings in Russia. Furthermore, the Yugoslav holocaust was apparently spontaneous, and started without any definite instructions from the Nazi occupation forces. This essay describes how it came about

In December 1940 the Nazi leadership discussed the war plans for the coming year. Goering, Goebbels and Ribbentrop wanted a renewed anti-British campaign, centred on the Mediterranean, but Hitler ignored them and set in train the planning for “Operation Barbarossa”, the invasion of the Soviet Union; the greatest military campaign the world had ever seen. However, events in the Balkans were to prove an unwonted distraction.
   Over the winter of 1940-41, Hungary, Romania and then Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact of Germany, Italy and Japan. Parallel with this, Mussolini, jealous as ever of Hitler grabbing all the headlines, quite unnecessarily declared war on Greece, and launched an invasion which, as with all his military interventions, proved entirely unsuccessful. Hitler was obliged to intervene to save his ally from humiliation.
   Yugoslavia was simmering with violent tension. The country had only been created from the ruins of the Austrian Empire at the end of the First World War (see my earlier blog essay), and hostility between Croats, Serbs and other racial groups ran deep. The leader of the Croat People’s Peasant Party had been murdered in the Parliament building in Belgrade in 1928, and King Alexander, of the Serbian royal family, was assassinated by the Croat Ustase faction on a visit to Marseilles in October 1934. Alexander left as his successor an eleven-year-old boy, Peter II, with a cousin, Prince Paul, to act as Regent.
   In the late 1930s Yugoslavia became increasingly economically dependent on Germany, and Paul’s government was inclined to follow other Balkan states into the Nazi camp, signing the Tripartite Pact on March 25th 1941. But just two days later a group of military officers staged a coup, deposing Paul and proclaiming Peter to be of age to rule. The clear implication was that the new regime would be less friendly towards the Nazis. The Soviet Union responded by sending Belgrade a goodwill message. Faced with this crisis, Hitler struck immediately, launching massive attacks on Yugoslavia and Greece on April 6th. Croatia immediately proclaimed its independence from Belgrade, and Yugoslavia surrendered before the end of the month. Greece, despite being reinforced by British troops from Egypt, did not last much longer.
 Greece was placed under Italian control, but Yugoslavia was partitioned, with Croatia and Bosnia formed into a puppet state under the pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic Croat Ustase movement under Pavelic, and Italy was compensated with Montenegro, part of Slovenia and the Dalmatian coast.

If the Nazi victories in the West did not have immediately disastrous consequences for the local Jews, the same cannot be said in the Balkans. There was no immediate action against the 75,000 Greek Jews left under Italian control, which was only initiated by the Germans after the fall of Mussolini and surrender of Italy in 1943; but in Yugoslavia, where there were 70,000 Jews, terrible things began to happen immediately after the German conquest. Unlike the situation in other occupied countries, violence and murder by Nazi troops and S.S. was enthusiastically supported and extended by local anti-Semitic groups. Within a matter of days, the Croat government had passed a whole raft of laws very much on Nazi lines, banning interracial marriage, imposing badges of race and excluding Jews from official positions and from economic life. A concentration camp was established at Dancia, near Zagreb, and another at Kruscia, west of Sarajevo, in May 1941, and the roundup of Jews began. Jasenovac camp, opened a few months later on the banks of the Sava, became known as “the Auschwitz of Croatia”; a centre of torture and murder from which echoed the screams and groans of victims. But even the German occupying forces were shocked by the violence of the Ustase militias. Their regime was a curious mixture of Catholic puritanism and mass slaughter. The German plenipotentiary in Zagreb, Edmund Glaise von Horstenau, reported that they had gone raving mad. Men, women and children alike were gunned down in mass graves, hacked to pieces, thrown off cliffs, or burned alive in their villages. The Narentva and Sava rivers became choked with bodies, and local peasants had to be employed to pull them out in order to prevent flooding. Meanwhile the Germans watched the “blind, bloody fury” going on around them. It was, Glaise thought, the worst revolutionary violence he had seen since 1918. There is no reason to believe that the S.S. specifically planned these massacres, but they could hardly disapprove of them, and they certainly served the extremists’ purpose. Heydrich therefore instructed local Einsatzgruppen leaders to encourage such violence, provided it could not specifically be traced to the Germans. It seems in any case that the Ustase scarcely needed encouragement.
     By the end of 1941, the Jews of Bosnia were virtually all murdered or had fled; and the Banat region, north-east of the Danube and Tisa rivers, was officially declared Jew-free in October: most of its three thousand Jews having been shot in the Tasmajdan camp near Belgrade. In some respects, antisemitism was almost peripheral to the actions of the Ustase: some 25,000 Jews were massacred in Croat territory, but so were about as many gypsies, and perhaps as many as 400,000 Serbs. One feels sure that there would have been massacres even if not a single Jew had lived in Croat territory, and the hatreds created remain all too obvious decades later, when the Yugoslav state disintegrated in the 1990s.  But of the local Jews, only 7,000 remained to be taken to the death camps in Poland after 1942.
     Croatia thus provides the first instance of organised genocide in modern Europe, anticipating Nazi actions by several months. It is even possible that the Nazis learned something from Ustase actions, or were encouraged by them. The Nazis would also have observed the ambivalent stance of the church in this strongly Catholic state. Some church dignitaries deplored the massacres, but many local priests seem to have been enthusiastic participants. Archbishop Stepinac contrived to remain silent on the massacres, though he was able to comment approvingly on the new Croat state’s strong stance on abortion and contraception. This silence of the church was also to have later parallels.

     Serbia was placed under direct German military rule. Its leading functionary was Harald Turner, a civil servant who had risen under the patronage of Goering, and was unusual in the S.S. leadership in that he was not a full-blooded German; his father being English. Turner had plans to set up a collaborationist movement amongst the Serbs, which did not win the approval of Heydrich in Berlin; and like many Nazi functionaries, he was always looking over his shoulder at Meyszner, the S.S. and Higher Police Leader for Serbia, and at Fuchs the local Einsatzgruppe chief, and needed to prove that he could be every bit as brutal as them. He thoroughly approved of the elimination of the Serbian Jews. Violent attacks began immediately, concentration camps were established, and Turner unsuccessfully applied to have all the Serbian Jews deported to Poland.
     By summer 1941, serious partisan activity had broken out in Yugoslavia, and massive reprisals were ordered, involving the shooting of a hundred local hostages for every German killed. Turner found this a golden opportunity to rid himself of local Jews. He reported in mid-October that he had ordered the shooting of two thousand Jews and two hundred gypsies in retaliation for partisan violence: he acknowledged that he should really have had only Serbs shot (some of his victims had been Jewish refugees from Austria, who had no links whatsoever with the partisans), but added that “the Jewish question solves itself most easily this way ...... and besides, they have to disappear”. After a meeting with officials of the S.S. and the German foreign office, Turner was authorised to go ahead with the extermination of all Jews and gypsies in Serbia, and a gas van was sent to the camp at Semlin to assist with the task. By summer 1942, the Jewish problem was said to have been “totally solved in Serbia”.

     Not all the Yugoslav Jews went quietly to their deaths. At least two thousand joined Tito’s partisans. Many more fled to the Italian-controlled areas, where they were treated with tolerance, to the disgust of German observers. These Jews, and their compatriots in Greece, survived until the Holocaust reached its final stages.
   It is said that between 1941 and 1945 there were at least half a dozen different wars going on in Yugoslavia, of which the least significant was the struggle against the Germans. Hatreds were created that resurfaced in our own times, once the iron hand of Tito had been removed.

Footnote: The name “Ustse” can be found spelt in a variety of different ways.

(Sources:- Friedlander, "Nazi Germany and the Jews", and many other books)

Friday, 29 September 2017

A.E. Housman and Heroin!

Did you know that the poet A.E. Housman,best known for his "Shropshire Lad" cycle of poems, once took heroin?
   When he was in hospital with serious heart trouble over Christmas 1935, it was given to him as a soporific; which shows how very different medical procedures were eighty years ago! From this experience of the drug, Housman made the interesting comment, "I learnt what it is to be totally deprived of intellect".
   As far as is known, he felt no inclination to renew the experience, and he died the following spring.

(Source: Peter Parker: "Housman Country")

Monday, 18 September 2017

Wales: Gorse and Heather

Last week we went for a walk in the hills to the west of Conwy. The sky was clear and the colours of the gorse and heather were magnificent.

This is the view looking eastwards, with the Conwy river and the castle on the near bank; and the village of Deganwy on the far side.

Looking northeast, we find the Great Orme as a peninsula, with the seaside resort of Llandudno nestling below it.

The view to the north shows the village of Dwygyfylchi (if you're not a Welsh-speaker, don't try to pronounce this!), and in the distance a corner of the island of Anglesey, with Penmon Point and Puffin Island.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Report on Resistentialism, by Paul Jennings

Resistentialism is the name given to a school of philosophy which postulates that inanimate objects hate us, and strive to make life difficult for us at every opportunity: a theory invented by the humorous writer Paul Jennings in the early 1960s. Without doubt, all of us have been struck by this thought at times, but Jennings's inventive genius amplifies it with a mass of baroque detail.
   He begins by tracing the origins of the Resistentialist theory to such figures as a 19th century philosopher named Martin Friedegg, who first coined the word and developed the concept of "Thing-hatred" - but "In the confused terminology of this tortured German mystic we are never sure whether it is the Things who hate us, or we who hate the Things". He also refers to the "Clark-Trimble experiments", in which pieces of toast and marmalade were dropped on a series of carpets, ranging from coarse matting to priceless antique Chinese silk, and it was found that the proportion of pieces landing marmalade-side-downwards varied precisely with the value of the carpet - "except when a carpet was screened from the rest, in which case the toast didn't know that Clark-Trimble had other and better carpets".
   The central figure in Jennings's account is, however, a French intellectual called Pierre-Marie Ventre, who coined the phrase, "Les choses sont contre nous": "Things are against us". His gloomy philosophy sees man as a "neant", literally a "nothing", in futile opposition to the "derniere chose", the ultimate Thing, which is the hostile universe. Ventre thus breaks with "all previous thinkers, from the Eleatics to Marx, who have allowed at least some legitimacy to human thought and action". Ventre has written a play, "Puits Clos", about three old men who live at the bottom of a well, where there are also some bricks; "These symbolise Things, and all the old men hate the bricks as much as they hate each other. The play is full of their pitiful attempts to throw the bricks out of the top of the well, but they can of course never throw high enough, and the bricks always fall back on them".
   The "Theatre Jambon" (!) on Paris's Left Bank has now, we are told, staged a new Resistentialist drama by Blanco del Huevo, in which the two main characters are a piano and a medicine cabinet, which always contrive to frustrate the lives of their human owners, who are reduced to the status of mere "Pousses": literally "pushed-arounds". The machinations of the Things lead to both humans perishing miserably.
   Other followers of Ventre have attempted to reduce or eliminate the impact of Things in their fields. A Resistentialist composer produces a symphony for solo timpanum and thirty conductors, and an artist sits before a blank canvas meditating on natural disasters, such as earthquakes, and sometimes then finds his canvas has been covered with paint. Ventre, however, regards this as a dangerous compromise, since Things should ideally be eliminated altogether, including the canvas and paint.
   Recently, we are told, a heretic has emerged within the Resistentialist group in the form of a dramatist called Qwertyuiop. His plays feature a Nietzschean hero called a "geant", who intervenes, "often with great comic effect", to save humans from suffering disaster at the hands of Things. The hard-line Ventrists have reacted by violently interrupting performances of his plays at the "Theatre des Somnabules", and there have been scuffles and subsequent arrests all over the Left Bank.
   It all goes to show, Jennings concludes, that "Paris still maintains her position as the world's intellectual centre". 

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Under the hill,over the hill

"Look, you might think me very old-fashioned, but I always understood there were certain formalities to be gone through on these occasions. You should tell me your name and then boldly challenge me to come forth and defend my hoard: not try to sneak in like youve just done. So what is your name? Tristan? Oh, SIR Tristan! I do apologise: no offence intended. And my name? Well, men once called me Chrysophylax: Chrysophylax the Golden, whose wings beshadowed the sun. Rather poetic, dont you think? If a touch overblown. My real name, of course, I couldnt possibly pronounce in your language, so I wont even try. And while were on the subject, Sir Tristram: that sword youre swinging about; does it have a name too? No? not even something crude and vulgar, like Skullsplitter? Sad. In my younger days, the warriors who came to challenge me all had swords with names; and some were supposed to have ancient lineage, made by the dwarves or whatever, or were even said to be magical. Absolute tosh, of course; but still quite romantic. Ah well; times change.
   "Now, if we want to do this properly, you should challenge me to fight. Denounce me as a thief and murderer, and tell me youre going to kill me and take away my ill-gotten gains. But I must point out that, although the accusation is by and large true, I havent actually done any plundering and slaughtering for a great many years. It was all a very long time ago; and in any event, I dont see why it gives you any right to take my treasure for yourself. Or you could be more up-to-date, and talk about the serious deflationary effects of keeping all this gold locked away out of circulation, and how international liquidity would be greatly improved by releasing it onto world markets .. What? Youve never even heard of economics, or monetary theory? No, clearly not. Forget about it; its my fault. I just presumed things out there must be more advanced than they actually are. Heigh-ho.
   "Moving on from there: may I ask, Sir Tristan, why you decided to come? Because dragon-fighting is a game for young warriors, or at least it was. Teenage heroes: many of whom, frankly, were just kids with more guts than sense. Dont say theyre letting the oldies in on it nowadays: that would NOT be a great idea! Im no expert in humans, I admit; but its obvious youre not exactly in the first flush of youth. Take the way you swung that sword at me when you came in; quite an effort, wasnt it? I can tell youre not as fast as you once were. Shoulders getting stiff, are they? Bit of the old back trouble? Knees start to hurt if you stay en garde too long? And maybe the mailcoat feels rather tight around the waist, but getting a bigger one would be too much of an admission? So what made you come here, and try to get your hands on my treasure? Do you need the money? Or are you trying to recapture the glories of your youth: prove to yourself you can still do it? Or perhaps a bit of both? Thats my suspicion anyway.Now dont get offended; I quite understand; because Im getting old too. Im not sure quite how old, but it must be hundreds of your years, if not thousands. But the notion that dragons are immortal is mythical. We age, just like everyone else, though it takes much longer. Look at me: I havent been outside this cave for I dont know how long. Im amazed anyone even remembered I was here. And these wings, which once beshadowed the sun; I dont know whether theyd fly at all now. Not so much golden as rusty these days! Hah!
   "So there you have it: were both of us past our best, arent we? All washed up. Headed for the scrap-heap. Here we both are, together in my lair under the hill, but at the same time were over the hill! Thats a nice ironic little paradox for you, isnt it?
   "Im not going to fight you, Sir Tristan. Maybe Id beat you, maybe youd beat me; but either way, itd be an embarrassment. Two old cronks bashing away at each other till they both run out of breath or one of them drops dead with a heart attack! Not good! So Ive got a better suggestion for you.This treasure, now. It took a lot of looting, burning and general rapine to accumulate it all, and I wont pretend I didnt enjoy doing it: in fact it was tremendously enjoyable. But, as I told you, that was all over long ago, and nowadays I dont seem to do anything except lie here and count it. And I can tell you for a fact, hunting down and collecting something is much more fun than spending years just owning it: its not the same thing at all. Sometimes I do wonder why I bother to keep it all, and do you know, I really cant think of an answer? When you look back on life, you realise that you set yourself various goals, and some of them you achieved, only perhaps they werent quite as exciting as you expected, and the rest you realise youll never achieve now. So what Im proposing to you is this: instead of fighting for my gold, why dont you just take as much of it as you can carry, and go home? You can tell people youve killed me, for all I care. Theyll probably believe you, and I doubt very much whether anyone will actually come up here to check. If you want, you could make the story more exciting by saying I put a dying curse on the treasure, or something like that. And who knows, when youre really old, you might come to believe yourself that you once actually killed a dragon. And if everyone, including you, believes it happened, then its just as good as if it really did, isnt it?
   "So go ahead; take what you want: I won't stop you".


Some time later, the dragon awoke from a doze and thought to himself, Really, that all got pretty tedious, didnt it? I sometimes wonder what the worlds coming to, when I have to explain the most obvious things, practically spell them out word for word, not just to children but even to adults. I think that as I get older, I dont get more patient and tolerant, but less! But then he thought, No, its not fair to blame poor old Tristan; its not really his fault he was so ignorant: its just that no-one ever bothered to teach him anything.
   In any case, he may have been a bit over the hill, but he still tasted quite nice!

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Creation of Yugoslavia

"Yugoslavia" means the "land of the South Slavs". The Slavs were a people speaking versions of the language-group known as Slavic, who probably originated somewhere around Poland; some of whom migrated southwards into the Balkans in the 7th century to be the ancestors of the Serbs, Croats and others. A Serb kingdom had formed in the 13th century, only to be crushed by the Turks at the battle of Kossovo in 1389.

My old Bartholomew atlas, published around 1880, depicts a situation in the Balkans very different from today. In the 16th century the entire region, including most of Hungary, had formed part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, but by the late 19th century the Turkish tide had receded. Several new states had appeared: the Kingdoms of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Montenegro, with frontiers settled at the 1878 Congress of Berlin; and looming over them the Empires of Russia and Austria.
   Since 1867 the Austrian Empire had been divided into two different administrations, with Franz Josef being simultaneously Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Most of Croatia formed part of Hungary, but Slovenia and the Dalmatian coast were part of Austria. Although the Serbs and Croats spoke a common language, divisions between them were deep, for the Croats were Catholic and used the Roman alphabet, whereas the Serbs were Greek Orthodox and used the Greek script. Separate from both was Bosnia, which had a large Moslem population: in 1878 it formed a separate territory under Austrian supervision. Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire still included Albania, Macedonia, Kossovo and all the northern coast of the Aegean.
   Peace prevailed in the Balkans for a generation, only to be threatened, though not broken, in 1908, when the Austrians took advantage of a period of Russian weakness to annex Bosnia outright. This alarmed and disgusted the Serbs. Henceforth Austria and Serbia were enemies: the Serbs now looked to Russia for protection against any Austrian aggression, and the Austrians for their part suspected the Serbs of stirring up subversion within the Empire. The Russians for their part were determined not to be diplomatically humiliated by Austria in the future.
   In 1912 all the Balkan states joined together in a war against the Turks, and drove them back to the very gates of Constantinople, but immediately afterwards the other states turned against Bulgaria, which had made the most gains. The result was a new set of frontiers, with Albania as a new state, Macedonia and Kossovo going to Serbia and most of the north Aegean coast to Greece; but the other legacy was high casualties, great civilian suffering and many deep, underlying hatreds.

Everyone knows how in 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, by a group of young terrorists of Serbian race, and how the Austrian government (not without some justification) suspected involvement of the Serbian state in the murder. The Austrians, encouraged by Germany, decided to use this as an opportunity to destroy Serbia, and, after the Serbs had refused to accept a very tough ultimatum, declared war. But, unlike in 1908, the Russians felt they had to take a strong line, and mobilised their armies in Serbia's suport; and then Germany, alarmed by this, also mobilised, declared war on Russia and on Russia's principal ally, France. By these moves a quarrel in the Balkans led to the horrors of the First World War.

Serbia's losses in the war were exceptionally heavy for such a small country. Since 1911, over 1.2 million of her people had died, 28% of the population, two thirds of them being civilians. In addition, she now had to cope with 72,000 disabled veterans and 180,000 war widows. She would expect some recompence.

President Wilson's "14 Points" for a future peace settlement, issued in January 1918, made only brief and somewhat vague reference to the Balkans. Point 10 said that "The peoples of Austria-Hungary should be given the freest opportunity of autonomus development", and Point 11 that "Serbia should be accorded free and secure access to the sea". There was also Point 9, which promised "Readjustment of the frontiers of Italy to conform to clearly recognizable lines of nationality". The ambiguities were to lead to trouble.
   In the autumn of 1918 the Austrian Empire disintegrated, and South Slav troops from her army took control of surrounding territories, including Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro and the Dalmatian coast. But what sort of a government should emerge from this? Should it be a centralised state or a loose federation? Yugoslavia, the "Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes", which was envisaged, would actually include substantial minorities of ethnic Germans, Hungarians and Albanians, as well as Bosnian Moslems and considerable numbers of Jews. Furthermore, the Croat leader, Trumbic, despised the Serbs as "half-civilized", and in Montenegro there was civil war, involving groups loyal to the prewar royal family.
   The strongest opposition to a Yugoslav state came from Italy. The Italians had been persuaded to enter the war by the 1915 Treaty of London, which promised them not only the Austrian port of Trieste at the head of the Adriatic, but also some of the Dalmatian coastline and a "protectorate" over Albania. They saw the Slovenes and Croats as enemies who had fought for Austria, and as the war ended, Italian troops entered these territories as conquerors, and Italian agents sought to stir up racial and social disputes. But President Wilson announced that he was not bound by the Treaty of London, and Britain and France,for different reasons, were sympathetic with the creation of a Yugoslav state. The peace negotiations at Versailles saw endless disputes about control of ports on the Dalmatian coast, which culminated in Orlando, the Italian Prime Minister, walking out of the talks in April 1919.
   The future shape of the Balkans was settled in September 1919 by the Treaty of St. Germain with Austria and the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary. Both were reduced to their respective German-speaking and Magyar heartlands, as seen on present-day maps, and treated as defeated enemy powers. New countries emerged: Czechoslovakia in the north and Yugoslavia in the south, and Transylvania was awarded to Romania. Substantial racial minorities found themselves unwillingly placed under new rulers, not least in the new Yugoslavia. The main threat to the infant state came initially from Italy, which claimed the port of Fiume (now called Rijeka). In 1919 Fiume was occupied by a scratch force commanded by the posturing Italian romantic poet and novelist Gabriele d'Annunzio. He withdrew after the Treaty of Rapallo in 1920 awarded Istria and Zadar to Italy, and Fiume was later incorporated into Italy by Mussolini.

The interwar period was far from peaceful for Yugoslavia.  King Alexander of Serbia became monarch of the new state, to the disgust of many Croats. They voted in large numbers for the People's Peasant Party, whose leader, Sjepan Radic, was then shot and fatally wounded in the Parliament building in Belgrade in 1928. The riots which followed the murder were suppressed, and next year King Alexander abolished the constitution and proclaimed a royal dictatorship. In 1934 a Croat Fascist movement, the Ustase, led by Ante Pavelic, asassinated the King in a visit to Marseilles. Yugoslavia was thus always simmering on the edge of violence, and one only has to read contemporary travellers' accounts, such as Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" to learn how much Serbs and Croats hated and mistrusted each other. All this was to boil over in scenes of hideous brutality in the Second World War.

(To be continued in a later post)

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Sir Lewis Namier on the popularity of modern dictators

The great historian Sir Lewis Namier (1888-1960) wrote an essayin 1947 entitled "The First Mountebank Dictator" on the subject of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the great Napoleon, who was unexpectedly elected President of the French Republic in 1848, then four years later staged a coup and declared himself Emperor of France. He was finally overthrown after being defeated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
   Louis-Napoleon has always been a mystery to historians: he was first elected by an overwhelming majority of the votes, despite his complete lack of previous achievements; he governed by direct appeal to the masses (who were small farmers in the countryside rather than city workers) and was generally despised by the intellectual classes; and his policies were a mixture of authoritarian control from the centre, some measures of social reform, grandiose public building projects, an interventionist foreign policy in Europe (such as his participation in the Crimean War and his crucial role in the unification of Italy) and imperialism throughout the rest of the world. None of his writings show any sign of coherent political thought.
   Namier discusses Louis-Napoleon's popular appeal, which he styles "Caesarian democracy", characterised by:-

    "Direct appeal to the masses; demagogical slogans; disregard of legality in spite of a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political classes and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises for all and sundry; militarism; blatant displays and shady corruption".

   Namier was in origin a Central European Jew, and at the time of his writing this essay what particularly interested him was to draw a comparison between Louis-Napoleon and Hitler. Of the early careers of the two future leaders, which were marked by "miserable failures", he writes:-

   "Both men were treated with humane and neglectful forbearance .... Not even at a later stage did the political leaders realise the full gravity of the situation - thinking in terms of their own and not in those of the masses, they could not descry either in Louis-Napoleon or Hitler a possible ruler or dictator".

   What struck me when reading this essay was how much of this could be applied to certain leaders of the present day - mentioning no names!

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Dubrovnik and Kotor

(This is a continuation of my previous blog entry, describing my recent visit to Croatia)

I can recommend our hotel at Dubrovnik, which was the Valamar Argosy, on the coast at the outlying district of Babib Kuk (which, we were told, means “Grandmother’s Hip”, owing to a Turkish misunderstanding of the Serbo-Croat name). It had good rooms, good food and a splendid outdoor pool, and had the inestimable benefit of being the terminus of the No. 6 bus to the old city, so it was impossible to get lost. Ciccadas were very noisy in the trees, and swifts were flying very low.
We had two days in Dubrovnik, separated by an expedition into Montenegro; a very strange country. The only currency accepted there is the Euro, which is surprising because Montenegro is not a member of the E.U. It was suggested to us that the principal business was money-laundering, as shown by the fact that there were no British banks to be seen, but plenty of Russian ones. To coin a phrase: I couldn’t possibly comment… In the wars of the 1990s, the Montenegrans supported Serbia in the bombardment of Dubrovnik (see later).
We had two stops there, at Perast on the Bay of Kotor,
 where we had a boat-trip to a little island with a pretty church, 
and then at the city of Kotor itself. Both these places were devastated by a massive earthquake in 1979, and were rebuilt as they had been; but as my parents’ Communist-era guidebook said, it was unlikely that all the architectural details could ever be reconstructed.
So Kotor is still a mediaeval city, with defensive walls running up the precipitous mountainside behind, and a tangle of alleyways from which motor vehicles are excluded. We were issued with maps, but since hardly any of the narrow, twisted streets bore names, it was very easy to get lost.
 I found the easiest strategy was simply to hand the map to a shopkeeper and ask to be shown where I was. Eventually I managed to find the cathedral and other impressive buildings.

But the highlight of the week was always going to be Dubrovnik. It was once known as Ragusa: a strongly-walled mercantile city-state on the Dalmatian coast, which for centuries managed more or less to retain its autonomy by striking a balance between the neighbouring powers of Venice, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. It was even occupied by Napoleon’s troops for a brief period in 1806. In 1815 it was incorporated into the Austrian Empire, and after 1918 assigned to Yugoslavia. This was the position when my parents visited in the 1970s, but when the Yugoslav state fell apart Dubrovnik came under attack from Serbian and Montenegran forces in 1991-2, and was badly damaged by shellfire. Repairs have been made, but the episode has not been forgotten: there are maps posted around the city showing the extent of the destruction.

The classic view in Dubrovnik is the street called the Stradun, which leads eastwards from the Pile gate. 
Alleyways climb steeply on the north side. It passes the Large Onofrio Fountain 
and the Franciscan monastery
 before reaching the Square of the Loggia; the centre of the city.

Here you can find the church of St. Blaise, the patron saint of the city, with a statue of the hero Roland in front of it,

and close by the Rector's Palace, with a splendid interior courtyard, a museum, and most elaborate capitals to the columns in fornt of the entrance

From the harbour nearby 
you can take boat trips along the sea-walls
or out to the Elaphite Islands.

Fine views over the city can be gained by walking a circuit of the walls
but the classic view is obtained by taking the cable-car to Mount Srd, where there is also a monument to those who died defending the city in the 1991-2 "Homeland War"

All this barely scratches the surface of what there is to see in Dubrovnik!

Monday, 10 July 2017


My parents visited Yugoslavia, as it then was, some forty years ago, and took masses of photographs. This summer I signed up for a tour of Croatia and neighbouring republics, eager to see Split and Dubrovnik for myself, and find out what had changed in the interim, with the death of President Tito and the collapse of the Yugoslav state.
We flew into Dubrovnik airport and embarked on a coach drive to our first base, which was at Omis, some distance to the north. This took even longer than appeared likely on the map, because it is not possible to drive very far northwards along the coast from Dubrovnik whilst remaining in Croatia. Soon you come to the small resort town of Neum, which Tito had granted to Bosnia. Going through two border crossings within a handful of miles necessitated stopping the coach for passport checks. We had to go through this process several times in a week, and it was impossible to predict how long one would take. Would the officials scan each passport individually, or wouldn’t they bother? Also, Croatia and Bosnia now have their own currencies, though Bosnia also accepts Euros. (Montenegro is different again, as we found out later).
Eventually we arrived at Omis. My parents’ guidebook from the 1970s dismissed this as a scruffy place, but now it has new hotels along the beach, with a network of tiny stone alleyways behind. The setting is dramatic, being overlooked by massive cliffs.

 It lies on the estuary of the river Cetina, and in earlier centuries was the home of notorious pirates who preyed on Venetian galleys sailing down the Adriatic, and then retreated upriver out of sight behind deep limestone gorges. We took a boat-trip to these waters.

 Nowadays the overwhelming majority of businesses are cafes, restaurants and tourist shops; but our hotel, the Plaza, was comfortable, with a good selection of food. There is a castle above the town, but I didn't climb up to see it.

Our first expedition was to the Krka national park, inland from Split. The this part of Croatia proved to consist of rough scrubland, with few trees more than 6 feet high, with plenty of bare rock showing. We were told that wildfires were common. I saw signs of stones having been piled up for field boundaries and terraces, but these appeared to have been abandoned. Krka park consists of a large area where the river tumbles over a series of small waterfalls, and a broadwalk meanders through the woods and across the many small streams. 

It was all very pretty. The water was very clear, slightly blue, and there were plenty of fish to be seen, though not, unfortunately, any of the terrapins, frogs or snakes also advertised. 

My only complaint would be that there were far too many people about; which proved to be an annoyance throughout the holiday. We were then taken by boat to the little town of Skradin further down the river

Next day we drove north to Split; a fair-sized town with a harbour and sea-front promenade but unpleasant suburbs, famous for Diocletian’s palace.

 Diocletian was a native of the district: a rough soldier who rose to be Roman Emperor and revived the crumbling empire in the late 3rd century. He then, uniquely, abdicated and retired to his homeland, where he built this huge rectangular structure which more resembles a fortified military camp than a palace as we would understand the term. 
Much of it is still inhabited, with four gates known as Gold, Silver, Iron and Bronze, 

and alleyways laid out in a regular grid pattern.

Since my parents' visit the vast storerooms beneath the palace have been opened to the public

 Diocletian was the last great persecutor of Christians, so it was ironic that his mausoleum at the heart of the palace was later converted into an ornate cathedral.

 The peristyle and vestibule next to the cathedral must be the most photographed places in the country, and it was a shame we couldn’t get a better view of them. 

But alas, there was a new invasion of barbarian hordes, in the shape of several huge cruise ships had anchored in the harbour, and we had to elbow our way through dense crowds, particularly of Chinese intent on taking selfies in front of any place of interest. It was amazing that we all kept in touch with our guide and didn’t get lost.

After some time wandering inside and outside the palace, our group reassembled and were taken a few miles along the coast to Trogir, a mediaeval city on a small island reached by a single bridge.

 Fortunately there were fewer tourist parties about. Like every other place we visited, the construction was of a particularly hard white limestone, with the streets polished like marble by the feet of generations of visitors. There was a Venetian fortress at the western end. 

The cathedral was particularly fine, with splendid carvings around the west door. 

I climbed the hazardous steps up the campanile for a view over the town.

On the next day, a Sunday, we said farewell to Omis and passed through a very long tunnel through the mountains en route to Bosnia. (Technically we were to enter Hercegovina, a matter of considerable importance to the inhabitants). As soon as we crossed the frontier, the sparsely inhabited grazing-land was replaced homes with small market-garden plots, notably of tobacco. There was also a profusion of car-breakers’ yards: we were told that most of the stolen cars of Europe ended up in these. Finally we reached Mostar, just before midday.

The city is built in a bowl in the mountains, and is incredibly hot. It used to be a city with a mixed Moslem and Christian population, famous for its bridge over the river Neretva, constructed for the Sultan Sulemein the Magnificent in the 16th century. 

The bridge was deliberately destroyed by shellfire in 1993, in the wars that marked the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and a replacement, closely copying the old bridge, was opened in 2004.
 Nowadays the city is segregated, with Christians on the west bank and Moslems on the east. A new Franciscan monastery has been built, with a tower deliberately planned to overtop any of the Turkish minarets. Despite the heat I climbed the minaret of the Koski Mehmet Pasha mosque to get the best view of the bridge and the city.

 Then we drove south, once again passing through Neum, to reach our next base, at Dubrovnik. I shall describe this in my next entry.